Richard E. Baker served in the U. S. Army with the 4th Infantry Band. He did not spend his time in Vietnam marching on parade grounds playing his horn, though. He was in the field, setting up ambushes and the like. He has suffered a life-long battle with PTSD.
Cao Bang: Brothers in Arms (CreateSpace, 276 pp., $11, paper) is part of Baker’s French Foreign Legion in Vietnam historical fiction series. Baker has done thorough and painstaking research for his recounting of the “retreat from Cao Bang [which], marks one of the largest fiascos in military history, ” as he puts it.
Both the French and the Viet Minh are presented precisely and accurately in a narrative populated with memorable characters of many nationalities and disparate personalities. Baker is first a fine storyteller, and then a historian. But he never pushes his research down the throats of his readers. Still, you will know a lot more about the French War in Indochina after you have read this book.
I especially enjoyed the characters that Baker brought alive and the context in which they lived and fought. Baker’s great gift of knowing what to include in a list benefits the reader again and again in a book that is populated with lists along with unforgettable characters, both European and Asian. Even Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, the Viet Minh commander, a minor character in this book, comes alive in his few scenes. Baker has Giap say, “I’m not concerned about winning battles, just in winning the war.”
I am compelled to quote part of one of Bake
r’s fine lists, just to show how he brings French Indochina in the 1950s alive.
“Tables of meat stood under cover: pig, dog, and cow, heads stripped of skin, buckets of entrails, tails undressed of hide, bowls of eyeballs staring blankly as if they could still see, thick tongues, brains piled like wet cauliflower, hooves, penises, legs crisscrossed across the wooden tables, and piano keys of ribs waiting for the delicate fingers of some mad and carnivorous musician.”
Baker shows the Legionaires “in search of small pleasures at cheap prices.” I could easily identify with them. Much is made of the pleasure that the soldiers took in smoking cheap cigarettes. I loved the comment from one of the villains: “With a single idea, much can be accomplished.” This accomplishment is fired by cigarettes.
My favorite line comes near the end: “Many top generals were poor leaders; that is how they earned promotions and became top generals.” That was my impression from my one meeting with Gen. William Westmoreland. All he wanted to talk about with me was that I needed a haircut. He had no interest in my theories about why he was losing the war.
This is a brilliant and enjoyable novel of the French debacle in Indochina, and it is prophetic of how the American War would go. We, too, were ignorant of history and scorned and dismissed both the French effort and the Viet Minh who beat them. America is always convinced of our exceptionalism. We turned out to be more like the French than we would admit.
I highly recommend this novel and all novels by Richard Baker. He is creating one of the great bodies of work about war in Vietnam—an entire shelf of books worth reading.